A guide to educational apps has been created, thanks to international researchers including Dr Jordy Kaufman, Senior Research Fellow at the Brain and Psychological Sciences Centre at Swinburne University of Technology.
Dr Kaufman explains the research team's incentive: "With the introduction of the iPad only five years ago, the market has been flooded with thousands of apps for young children labelled 'educational'. Until now, it has been difficult to determine whether or not these apps have any educational value."
Their synopsis? Four key features indicate educational value. If an app has at least one, it passes the litmus test, but the more, the better. Here they are, in no particular order.
An app needs more than just the use of motor skills to qualify as educational. This means swiping or tapping alone won't do the trick. "A good example of a storybook app that encourages mental activity is one that might ask children to choose among story characters or objects that enhance the storyline," explains Dr Kaufman.
To learn, kids need to stay focused. Easier said than done, you're probably thinking, but it doesn't have to be hard provided you choose the right apps. Ones that avoid distracting features like exaggerated sound effects, wacky animations or virtual stickers are ideal. If in doubt of your kid's tolerance for no-frills learning, Dr Kaufman has an antidote: "Apps should engage children through intrinsic motivation to learn – by giving children new information."
Dr Jennifer Smith, developmental, educational and counselling psychologist, concurs with Dr Kaufman and stresses the crucial significance of active and engaged learning. She puts it simply, "children don't learn if the learning isn't active and engaged".
For an app to be educationally effective and memorable, forget dreary abstraction. It should instead incorporate familiar elements from kids' daily lives.
To illustrate, Dr Smith is developing such an app. It will teach literacy; both basic skills and connected text (story) reading. To engage young, restless minds, the app is dog-themed, because apart from the scaredy cats, most kids have a lot of love for puppies. An added layer of child-relevance is found in the game's stories, which "deal with situations that emulate children's lives. For example, mild social conflicts or experiences with early school teacher discipline".
Jonathan Hairman, 40, father of Claude, aged three and Harper, five, unwittingly applauds meaningful learning as he describes Claude's newfound interest in learning his abc's. He specifically credits the app ABC Reading Eggs for this. "There are some animated insects – ants and cute cartoons between exercises like connecting the capital 'A' to the small 'a' with a line, or touching the letter that makes the sound. The animations have made him more engaged".
Just as Club Penguin and the like simulate real world scenarios, so too should learning games. This means social interaction (an equally important skill, by the way), is ripe for inclusion in an app. So, whether applied using Facetime or a multi-player competition, interactive features are hardly gimmicks.
While active, engaged and meaningful learning as well as social interaction are valuable educational app strategies, they aren't the be-all and end-all. Amongst other types, often bastardised rote learning has its place. "Rote learning can be a very effective form of learning, for example, when children need to acquire basic skills. [Such as] learning the sound of alphabet letters, mathematical times tables or piano scales", says Dr Smith.
Dr Smith suggests some further pointers to look out for in an educational app:
- The level and pace of learning is set at the child's entry level
- There's immediate feedback about success of performance
- There are immediate opportunities to fix mistakes
- A reward is offered at each step
- Progress is determined by success at each level
Though educational apps are proliferating faster than virtual bunnies and becoming more sophisticated, Dr Kaufman remains doubtful of their ability to trump old-school, classroom education. "Whether apps can provide entirely new opportunities compared to what can be provided by an excellent teacher is still a lofty goal."
Dr Smith agrees and also gives the apps kudos. "I think apps can be an excellent adjunct to traditional forms of educational delivery and I know there is good research to support technology assisted instruction. I believe that there's room for both".
The overarching message? Get downloading, in a discretionary way, perhaps using Dr Kaufman's guide. So far, it's got Jonathan Hairman's vote: "It's definitely something we'd read and consider the results of".
Top 5 customer-rated educational iOS apps for kids
Source: Back to school: apps for primary school children and younger, August 2014, adjust.
Top 5 educational Android apps for kids
2. Toca Kitchen
Source: Google play.